The businessman and the architect are huddled in the back of the Park Heights Barber Shop. The front of a nearby liquor store is plastered with the cut-rate, dollar and cents prices of bourbon, rum and beer. What to do? What to do?
While the facade may be good for business, it doesn't fit the "program," a plan to spruce up the Park Heights corridor that Johnny Clinton and Stuart J. Macklin have been pushing for the past three years. Mr. Clinton will visit the liquor store, talk to the owner about sprucing up the front of the place. Mr. Macklin will sketch a few possibilities.
"By Park Heights looking good and being strong, our community is," said Mr. Macklin of the community-based effort to improve the four-lane thoroughfare from Garrison Avenue to the Baltimore County line. "Park Heights is so strong a street. If it's not a good-looking place, then our community doesn't look good. It's like our front face."
So for the past three years, Mr. Macklin, an architect who lives north of Northern Parkway, and Mr. Clinton, whose barbershop is south of Northern Parkway, have led a campaign by neighborhood leaders, civic organizations, associations and politicians to revitalize a corridor that is home to a diverse group of businesses, residents and institutions.
But as coalition members debated sidewalk widths and streetscape furniture, tree plantings and a new community logo, banners and bus traffic, they discovered something else along the way:
Changes that have little do with trash receptacles and storefront signs were occurring in the hearts and minds of the Christians and Jews, the blacks and whites who live above and below Northern Parkway.
"In the past, black people felt that the people north of Northern Parkway didn't want to have anything to do with the people south of Northern Parkway," said Mr. Clinton, the 49-year-old president of the Pimlico Merchants Association who opened his barbershop in 1974.
"Getting together with the corridor project, talking about beautifying the community, [people realized] we all have the same identical problems and we have the same goals," said Mr. Clinton. "Things like that help to bridge the gap."
The gap is being bridged in subtle ways.
The Northwest Baltimore Corp. conducted its annual meeting at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. The Park Heights corridor task force has met at the Jewish Community Center. When CHAI, the Jewish community's Park Heights-based planning and development agency, hired a new staffer two years ago, it had planned to use him as an organizer in the neighborhoods north of Northern Parkway. But the corridor project was under way and the staffer went to work on the commercial area south of Northern Parkway.
"We all wanted Park Heights to be a dynamic, important part of the community," Mr. Macklin said.
To drive along Park Heights Avenue is to witness the corridor's diversity: from Pimlico Race Course to the Har Sinai elderly housing complex, from the Rev. Sister Faye Evangelistic Office to the Baltimore Hebrew University, from Northwestern Senior High School to the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses, from Brown's Caribbean Bakery to the Baltimore Birth Center.
But in the past 20 years, the Park Heights neighborhoods that lie north and south of Northern Parkway have changed in different ways.
The formerly white communities south of Northern Parkway have become heavily black. While the neighborhoods north of Northern Parkway have become more racially integrated, they retain a white majority.
In addition, a wave of Russian immigrants and religious Jews has given new vitality to those northernmost neighborhoods, increasing their numbers at a time when the city's overall population declined from 900,000 to 736,000.
Over the years, a perception developed that the "haves" lived to the north of Northern Parkway and the "have nots" lived to the south, said Bill Madison, a community association president who has lived a block south of Pimlico Race Course for 20 years.
"That is a perception. That is not reality," he said. Nonetheless, resentment developed that "everything below Northern Parkway had been ignored," he said.
The move to improve the Park Heights Avenue corridor began in 1987 with CHAI, which had been developing and shoring up home ownership. The group decided to broaden its scope beyond the residential neighborhoods. But it realized the need to include the commercial area south of Northern Parkway in its plans.
"The physical well-being of the residential area is dependent upon the commercial areas," said Cass Gottlieb, CHAI's president. "People depend or they should depend upon the services in the commercial area. If the commercial area is not doing well, they will go elsewhere for their services and eventually they will move."
"It's really important that [Northern Parkway] not be seen as some kind of Maginot line," added state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a task force member who referred to the World War II fortification.